Like passengers in a car veering away from the edge of a cliff, a big collective “whew” went up from Democrats (including the writer) everywhere on the evening of November 8. But in the past two months, where’s any after-report or commentary explaining how Democrats also allowed the most lawless, lying, reactionary, party in American history to take over one chamber of Congress?
Fortunately, two late fall speeches by Biden on democracy helped elevate Republican radicalism into a top-tier issue, which averted a blowout. But elections aren’t horseshoes. According to the math that matters—viz., the GOP won the House by a margin of three percentage points—Jim Jordan will still chair the Judiciary Committee this month.
Good enough isn’t quite good enough.
The 2022 midterms won’t predict the next general election (any more than the 1982, 1994, or 2010 midterms did). Still, what lessons might the Democratic Party have learned to help them win Congress and the presidency in two years? To wit:
- How could they have failed for nearly two years to craft a memorable slogan and policy platform to sway swing voters? (“Build Back Better” clearly didn’t cut it.)
- Why did they fail to make the case for popular policies that the GOP shuns: the frozen minimum wage, the Child Tax Credit, Affordable Care Act, environmental protection?
- Why didn’t they aggressively exploit their vanishing majority in these post-election two months to conduct galvanizing hearings to set the table for the 118th Congress on, for example, student debt, the causes of price-gouging/inflation, a censure resolution against Marjorie Taylor Greene for remarks in December urging political violence (except for one House Judiciary hearing into possible misconduct at SCOTUS)?
- And why did prominent Democrats largely flinch at portraying Trump’s party as uniquely untruthful, unlawful, violent—even fascist? On any historical checklist, the “f” word fits an entity behind a deadly insurrection, big lies, book bans, minority rule, disregard for the rule of law, and racist hostility to the Other.
If a review of Democrats’ performance last November never goes deeper than a big sigh of relief at their near-death experience, they’ll be more likely to lose the next election—when they will also have to contend with the dual amplification of a vengeful House leadership and weaponized Twitter.
While it’s obviously hard to predict what issues will dominate the next cycle, lessons from the midterms should inspire Democrats to get back on the offense as soon as early 2023, which the fractious speakership fight can only encourage.
For starters, that means tattooing a very unpopular Trump (plunging to only 31 percent favorability rating in the most recent Quinnipiac poll) on nearly all Republican nominees. He’s the product of their party. And whether he ends up running seriously or not, Trump has the potential to destroy the brand of the GOP for a generation—especially after the six currently sitting criminal grand juries conclude their work.
Failing to do so would be like ignoring the disgraced Nixon in 1974 because he was no longer “on the ballot.” Republican candidates who have been either complicit or silent during Trump’s carnage need to be held politically accountable for shredding the truth and the law. Herbert Hoover was a Democratic piñata for some 50 years; the Republicans ran against Jimmy Carter for 20. Trump should be radioactive at least as long.
When it comes to “accentuating the positive” for 2024, the Biden White House will obviously keep touting real gains from its first term on jobs, drug prices, climate, infrastructure, gun safety, and gay rights—while also highlighting what’s to come in a possible second one.
Democrats, however, cannot depend on this White House—helmed by two likable, lower-voltage personalities focusing on their own reelection—to prosecute the negative case against a GOP playbook drafted over decades by hitmen from McCarthy to Nixon to Gingrich to Trump. (And given the now irreversible race to the bottom among 2024 presidential candidates—as well as the emboldened House GOP majority—the negative side of the political ledger will only grow.)
Effective counterattacks are more likely to emerge from public advocacy groups, a handful of aggressive members of Congress, and new wordsmiths at the DNC—ideally with the polemical skills of a Samuel Adams (or at least a Frank Luntz). Think of how Elizabeth Warren demolished Michael Bloomberg in the second Democratic presidential debate. It took her ferocity to break through the billion-dollar bubble protecting the ex-mayor.
To the contrary, however, Beltway consultants this past fall failed to provide effective antidotes to GOP fearmongering aimed at “Marxists, baby-killers, pedophiles” and, in Donald Trump’s thoughtful formulation, “scum.” The approach of “when they go low, we go high” sounds quaint in today’s age of rage.
Nor did Democratic advisers even attempt to neutralize manufactured culture-war red flags as “critical race theory,” “groomers,” vaccines, Hunter-Hunter-Hunter, “cancel culture,” “defund,” “woke”—the whole gamut of DeSantisism.
If not debunked, these diversionary illusory crises will sway millions of credulous and inattentive voters. Consider how easy it should be to pop those balloons. Recently, a federal court asked a lawyer for the state of Florida to define “woke” and was told it was “belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to redress them.”
An effective response would not mean merely piling even more Trump scandals onto the existing mountain of them, which largely worsens scandal fatigue among weary voters and a cynical media. More urgent are memorable messages and vivid metaphors that tie together the thousands of separate lies and scandals that already add up to the singular truth that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to both Don and Ron.
History, for example, still resonates with Herbert Hoover’s “a chicken in every pot,” Lenin’s “peace, bread, land,” Reagan’s “Morning in America,” and Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” It was painful for those of us who lived through the times when the “domino theory” and “welfare queen” paralyzed thinking on South East Asia and the welfare system. How can it be that conservative politicians have been so adept at slogans but not policy?
Finally, it’s corny but true that “good policies make good politics,” as majority leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren keep emphasizing. As lower inflation, more jobs, cleaner air, and lower drug prices take effect by the next election, some swing voters may take notice.
Can Democrats then run on both this pocketbook populism and an assault on GOP revanchism to create a “blue backlash”? There’s a new cadre of congressional talent in place to make that case—such as the eloquent House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, constitutional lawyer Jamie Raskin, wunderkind AOC, and cable-guys Ted Lieu and Eric Swalwell—and keep Republicans on the ropes.
In this crucial interregnum before the transition of the 117th Congress to the 2024 general election, the test is who controls the narrative. Will it be the McCarthy-Greene regime asserting that “87,000 more IRS agents” is Big Brother? That cutting Social Security is essential even if it risks tanking the economy? That the Ethics Committee must be weakened? Or will it be the Jeffries-Raskin bloc responding that the 87,000 number is a Trump-level lie and a euphemism for what is in reality a “Billionaire’s Protection Act,” that failing to increase the debt limit will lead to a “Republican recession,” and that weakening the Ethics Committee is really just a Get-George-Santos-out-of-jail-free card?
Because if above-the-fray Democrats let them, Greene and Musk will be more than happy to flood the zone with their QAnon conspiracies and stochastic terrorism—after all, they are better at threatening violence than winning votes.